A GOOD FRIDAY TALK
by Dom Alex Echeandia o.s.b.
During this Lenten season we went through of particular events in Jesus’ life that reflect the purpose and meaning of today’s celebration: Good Friday of the life-giver, sight-giver and faith-giver. We heard in the gospels particularly about the waters welling up to eternal life offered by the Samaritan woman, the sight of faith given to the blind man, and the life given back to Lazarus. We were also transported to the mount of the Transfiguration and have experienced with the apostles how the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets comes in Christ with the events of his passion and death, which takes place on the cross, in order to reach the final point of his resurrection. This sign of the cross and its fruits is what we are celebrating today.
To talk about the cross may not suggest much nowadays, and some people may find it irrelevant, even inside the church building. When we come to Abbey church on Good Friday we find the cross covered on the altar. This is a sign that something is happening here. However, what if the cross was not there at all? Would we miss it? We have become so accustomed to crosses since our childhood that they are now too familiar to us. We see them in churches, cemeteries, around necks and on ornaments. It can be taken as just another part of a decoration that means very little to us because it has lost its significance.
We can easily forget that the cross was an object of horror. In the first centuries, the early Christians found the cross shocking. They did not portray the crucified Jesus. It brought to mind the sight of a tortured man hanging in agony in his death. A modern equivalent may be suggested in order to recapture that original sense of shock, like an electric chair or the sight of a terrorist torturing someone to death. What the executioners did to Jesus was horrifying, treating him with such a brutality, aiming to strip him of everything that made him an individual.
You may remember Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion, in which the sufferings of Christ are too explicit. The brutality of the violence inflicted on Christ as he was journeying through the Stations of the Cross was too much and considered a very bloody experience. One may argue that this film is not faithful to the gospels as there is so little material about Christ’s earlier life. However, the fact is that he suffered and suffered to the point of death. This particular way to die has something to say to his followers about God himself.
As Paul expressed it in one of his letters, the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus was a scandal to the Jews and complete stupidity to the Greeks. The cross was not understood by people of Jesus time, and even in our present time we can miss its meaning. One of the reasons is that familiarity has produced indifference. Another reason may be that the cross gives a wrong signal to society that wants to cover up the reality of suffering and death. To those who don’t believe, the Passion of Christ is just rather unpleasant, man’s inhumanity to man, something that can be seen on the news every day. This begs the question, might it be more humane to get rid of this instrument of cruelty from our Christian faith?
The suffering and death of Christ in the first Good Friday was indeed real and horrifying. So when we bend down to kiss the Cross in adoration, we can see the grotesque figure of the Son of God, beaten half to death, hanging supported only by nails, and still embracing the true cross on which he died. This is the story of our Saviour; this is what we are sent to announce. Like Paul, we are also called to preach a crucified Lord, the story of our Salvation because our central belief is that Jesus died for our sins.
So, does it matter what kind of death Jesus suffered? Would it have been much different if Jesus had died as an old man, as many of us would like too, for example, seating by the lake of Galilee with a cup of tea at tea time, or on a nice comfortable chair by the shore of a Spanish summer, enjoying a nice glass of wine? He would still have died and we would still have been saved by the simple fact that God became man. However, this image of an old man in a happy death would not really satisfy what was required of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. It looked more fitting that Jesus share everything we are, including our suffering. Christ in fact did more than that. He was capable of feeling our deepest weakness as human beings, as he was tested to the extreme. Jesus was willing to experience those depths of our humanity. He suffered for us and sacrificed himself to the last drop of his blood. He was pierced for our sins in order to save us in his own humanity.
Jesus was abandoned by his disciples, betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, surrounded by enemies, accused of blasphemy by the priests, rejected by the people in favour of a murderer, and mocked by the Sanhedrin and by the Roman soldiers. The people who passed by the cross made fun of the one crucified, who apparently was forsaken by God.
Now, as Christians, we ourselves can identify with a particular character on the First Good Friday. Am I placed among the disciples who fled from danger, abandoning him? Perhaps in times of my life I have played the role of Peter by denying Jesus not just three times but often, or betrayed him like Judas did. Did I find myself in the place of Pontius Pilate, trying to avoid a position between good and evil while others were expecting me to give an answer? Even worse, did I “wash my hands” trying to justify a wrong action, so in the eyes of others I was still considered right and blameless. Perhaps I sometimes took the position of the religious leaders, in which it became easier to criticise others, and indeed condemning Jesus in them. Thus, it looks easy for us to experience unconsciously the events of Christ’s Passion and death now and here.
We all have experienced death of the people we loved. Death is the realisation that the person we greet every day does not answer, or the one we phone every week is not at the end of the phone line any more, or the reply on an e-mail will never come back again. We cannot ask them for their opinion; we cannot apologise to them or buy them any presents. That is the nature of death. Death is a great emptiness for those who remain in this earthly world. Nevertheless, it is also what we celebrate today, that Christ died for us. This is a real death, and a fruitful death, a death that gives life.
The tree of life is the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. We venerate the Cross which symbolizes how Jesus suffered and died for us. Earlier in the garden, Jesus accepted the cup of suffering that contains all suffering and sorrows and faults of humanity. With him our suffering and pain are bound up in the whole divine drama of the salvation of the world. In this drama he is handed over to be crucified, to be raised up on the wood of the cross before all people, and to manifest the fullness of his life.
On the Cross Jesus is presented as king and priest. Pilate’s ironic words to the people: “Here is your king” shows what lies behind it. Together with it, the title that appears on the cross announced the hidden reality. Jesus was raised on the cross to draw all men to himself. He was raised as triumphant king that returns to the Father triumphantly. He carries his cross, the throne of his glory because the power of his kingship does not come from below but from above. It is not from below, as is assured by the crowds: “We have no king but Caesar.” The testimony of the inscription “Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Jews” is for all the peoples from different languages in the world: “It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.” Jesus is publicly proclaimed king. He is exalted as true king, a kingship that neither Pilate nor the members of the Sanhedrin had been able to comprehend.
Jesus is also seen as Priest. The soldiers parted Jesus’ garments and distributed among themselves: “For the tunic without seam they cast lots.” Now, the high priest’s garment was woven from a single thread, therefore it is an allusion from the evangelist to say that Jesus has the dignity of a high priest that he executes at this moment on the cross. Jesus as priest is being the sacrifice and the one who offers the sacrifice on the cross. He is the intermediary between God and men. The words of Jesus from the cross, for the moment when the act of crucifixion was being carried out, is a plea for forgiveness of those who threaten him: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He knows no hatred. He does not call for revenge. He begs forgiveness for those who nail him on the Cross, and he justifies them by saying: “they know not what they do.”
St Paul in his letter said: “I blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Jesus, but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim 1:13). Paul as perfect disciple of the Law knew and lived the Scriptures and had a good master in his religious formation. However, knowledge by itself does not end up knowing the Truth in itself that transforms man. Paul needed to experience God’s grace in his own life to the point of losing sight and falling to the ground. God knows how limited we are, like St Paul recognized in his letter: “I received mercy”. Like him, we are also in need of God’s grace. This gift given by Jesus does go far beyond any bad action or attitude we may do to him. For example, at the cross next to Jesus there was the good thief, as we traditionally name him. This man affirmed by his request that the powerless man Jesus was the true king: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He wanted to be next to him in his kingdom as he was on the cross. – It reminds us of what James and John’s mother asked about seating at Jesus right and left. The advantage of the thief was that he was already drinking from the same chalice as Jesus. The reply of the Crucified Lord was over abundant, as grace is always overabundant. His gift of grace goes beyond what the man was asking: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Such is the grace God gives. Here the good thief becomes an image of hope, an image of consoling that God’s mercy can reach even in our final moments of this life, that even a last prayer can be answered.
This grace is manifested on this day. At the end of the Passion, as Jesus died, the veil of the temple was torn in two, the veil that seals off the Holy of Holies from human access. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest is permitted to pass through the veil, to enter into the Presence of God. This opening of the veil shows that the old temple with its sacrifices is over because a new reality is now come: the crucified Lord now has reconciled us with the Father. God himself has removed the veil and revealed himself in the crucified Jesus as the one who loves to the extreme, even to the last drop of his blood. The path way to God is open.
Yes, to the last drop, because as the Christ was crucified, the soldier pierced his side from which came out blood and water. The open side of the Lord has redeemed humanity. The New Adam has redeemed Adam, the old man. The Byzantine Liturgy of Friday morning called “octoechos” sings:
Just as the enemy captured Adam with a tree heavy with fruit, so you, O Lord, captured the enemy with the tree of your cross and your sufferings. Now the second Adam has come to find the one who was lost, to restore life to him who was dead...
The open side of the Lord asleep on the cross suggests the creation of Even from the side of the sleeping Adam. At the cross, a new Eve is created, the Church, Mother of all the living from the side of the new Adam. The recreation of a new humanity has taken place from the pierced and crucified Lord.
The cross is not seen just in terms of suffering but also in terms of the power of God’s love. This love is today revealed in the Cross. This is why we are always called to preach Christ crucified. This is the story of our salvation. This story begins with life in creation and ends, not with death but with life in the resurrection. I am the resurrection and the life. Without Resurrection, Passion and death mean nothing. It is only a story of brutality and horror, something that one wants to erase from humanity; it is a story of failure and despair. In the light of the Resurrection, it is a story of triumph and victory of love over hatred, of hope over despair, of life over death. This story of love, hope and life is the story of Christ who came to us to redeem us all. He came as a man like us; God became man and humbled himself to share our weakness, our struggles and temptations. He spoke to us words of love and is calling us today and everyday of our lives to share in the love which is the very life of God.
GOOD FRIDAY HOMILY
by Dom Paul Stonham o.s.b.
Abbot of Belmont (U.K.)
Good Friday 2014
As he gave up the spirit, having bowed his head, Jesus said, ‘It is accomplished.” What exactly did Jesus accomplish? We all know the Gospel story well: how he was conceived and born of Mary, where he grew up and called his first disciples, his preaching and the many miracles of healing, even raising the dead to life, the dangerous game his played with the Jewish authorities that ultimately led to that fateful, final week, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, the agony in the garden, the betrayal, arrest and trial; to end it all, the crucifixion. It seems a lot to accomplish in a short span of thirty years, only to end in failure, rejection and an ignominious death.
And yet what was being accomplished here was something far greater, “beyond the uttermost understanding that man’s wit can comprehend,” as Lancelot Andrewes put it, preaching before King James I on Good Friday 1605, “beyond the uttermost understanding that man’s wit can comprehend.”
Before the infinite inscrutability of God and the working of his mind and will and before the mystery of the Incarnation, we can only stand in awe and silent adoration, as Mary and the Beloved Disciple stood at the foot of the cross. To know God and love him and to begin to understand him, you have to know Jesus and love him, as the disciples, in spite of their weaknesses and denials truly did; look at Mary Magdalene. In that wonderful book Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell, Thibault explains the life of Jesus and the meaning of the cross to Abelard. He points to a fallen tree, sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, kind, and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ.” “Then, Thibault,” Abelard said slowly, “you think that all the pain of the world was Christ’s cross?” “God’s cross,” said Thibault, “and it goes on.”
Today, at this celebration of the Passion, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ, Son of God and Word made flesh, was crucified for us. The Cross of Jesus is the “bit of God that we saw.” In the words of St Augustine, “What God promises us for the future is great, but what God has already done for us in Christ is greater still. Who can doubt that he will give us his life, since he has already given us his death? Why is human weakness so slow to believe that we will one day live with God? After all, a much more incredible thing has already happened: God died for us.” Little wonder, then, that St Paul wrote, “far be it from me to glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“It is accomplished.” Amen.
CELEBRATION OF THE PASSION 2014
A LOOK AT LAST YEARS'S CELEBRATION IN ROME
ORTHODOX GOOD FRIDAY
GOOD FRIDAY VESPERS WITH PATRIARCH KIRIL IN MOSCOW
GOOD FRIDAY VESPERS WITH PATRIARCH KIRIL IN MOSCOW
STATIONS OF THE CROSS 2014
HOW DID MATTHEW INTERPRET JESUS' DEATH?
HOW DID MATTHEW INTERPRET JESUS' DEATH?
J.S BACH: ST JOHN'S PASSION